MARSEILLE, France — On a stage erected on lush green lawns overlooking the sun-soaked Mediterranean port of Marseille, President Emmanuel Macron declared on Saturday to a crowd of supporters, “The politics that I will carry out in the next five years will be environmental, or will not be!”
It was an ambitious promise for a president whose green policies have been criticized at repeated climate protests, condemned by courts for “inaction” and marked by failure to meet goals. But above all, Mr. Macron’s vow was a direct appeal to voters to his left, who hold the key to a final victory in the second round of the presidential election — and for whom climate has become a key issue.
Mr. Macron devoted about three-quarters of his hour-and-a-half speech to environmental issues. He promised to appoint ministers responsible for long-term environmental planning, to plant 140 million trees by 2030 and to rapidly cut dependence on oil and gas by developing nuclear and renewable energy.
“Inaction — not for me!” he told a cheering crowd of some 4,000 people who gathered in the Parc du Pharo, on the heights of Marseille, for what was possibly Mr. Macron’s last rally before the April 24th vote.
The event symbolized Mr. Macron’s strategy for the runoff between the centrist incumbent and his far-right opponent, Marine Le Pen: wooing the left with progressive policies and campaigning in working-class cities where he is trying to shed his image as an aloof president detached from everyday realities. If large numbers of left-wing voters stay home for the second round of voting, or migrate to Ms. Le Pen’s camp, it could spell serious trouble for Mr. Macron.
Stewart Chau, an analyst for the polling firm Viavoice, said Mr. Macron’s main goal was to “seek voters of Jean-Luc Mélenchon,” the far-left candidate who came in third overall in the first round of voting — but first in Marseille, with 31 percent of the vote.
In September, the president unveiled a multibillion-euro plan to tackle crime and poverty in Marseille.
Promising a “complete renewal” if he is re-elected, Mr. Macron also used his speech to attack Ms. Le Pen, accusing her of wanting to curtail freedom of the press, challenge gender equality and lead France out of the Europe Union. He is trying to revive the “dam” that mainstream voters have long formed by voting for anyone over a Le Pen — either his current opponent or her father, Jean-Marie, leaders of the French far right since the 1970s.
Saturday’s rally capped an intense week of campaigning for Mr. Macron, touring the country since Monday to make up for a lackluster initial campaign. Visiting only places where Ms. Le Pen or Mr. Mélenchon came out on top in the first round, he is risking engaging with angry residents, in an attempt to show that he, too, can feel their pain.
By contrast, Ms. Le Pen, who has long striven to soften her public image, has been more risk-averse, limiting her campaign trips this week. Instead, she has tried to cement her credibility with two news conferences on her institutional overhaul proposals and her foreign policy agenda.
But those events partly backfired after her party’s refusal to accredit some media outlets caused a stir, and as she detailed contentious plans to seek rapprochement with Russia and quit NATO’s integrated military command.
Ms. Le Pen has been more exposed to scrutiny since another far-right candidate, Éric Zemmour, failed to make the runoff. His incendiary comments opposing immigration and Islam drew much of the attention away from Ms. Le Pen, who has long been known for similar stances.
“The form confronts the substance,” said Mr. Chau, the analyst, adding that Ms. Le Pen’s sanitized image now clashed with “the reality of her ideas, which are anything but appeased, anything but softened.”
At a rally on Thursday in the southern city of Avignon, Ms. Le Pen mentioned immigration only three times, despite it being the cornerstone of her platform. She has proposed deporting foreigners after they have been unemployed for one year, giving priority to native-born French for social housing and benefits, and abolishing the right to citizenship through birth in France.
Her supporters were blunter. “She still wants to kick out the immigrants,” said Aline Vincent, a French flag in her right hand, who attended Ms. Le Pen’s rally along with about 4,000 others. “But she doesn’t say it the same way.”
In Marseille, Daniel Beddou, said he “was very worried” about the rise of the far right. Holding a European flag in his left hand, he said he was pleased by Mr. Macron’s environmental plans. He said they embodied the president’s “at the same time” approach, referring to his habit of borrowing policies from both the left and right.
As he appeals to the 7.7 million voters who backed Mr. Mélenchon in the first round and appear to hold the key to a final victory, Mr. Macron has toned down some of his proposals, like a plan to raise the legal retirement age to 65 from 62, which he now says could be softened.
On Saturday, he also insisted on long-term “environmental planning” — a concept that was a cornerstone of Mr. Mélenchon’s platform — promising to appoint a minister “directly responsible” for it, assisted by two ministers in charge of the energy and environmental transition.
“There’s a real willingness to speak to a working-class electorate, a left-wing electorate that we lacked in the first round,” said Sacha Houlié, a lawmaker and spokesman for Mr. Macron’s campaign.
What to Know About France’s Presidential Election
To what extent Mr. Macron’s last-minute leftward tilt will yield results at the ballot box remains to be seen.
Many voters remain disillusioned by Mr. Macron’s tack to the right in recent years. François Dosse, a French historian and philosopher who was one of Mr. Macron’s most enthusiastic supporters in the last election, said his tough stance on immigration and against Islamic extremism amounted to “recycling the fears of the far right” and indirectly lending credence to Ms. Le Pen’s discourse.
“It’s about playing Russian roulette,” Mr. Dosse said of Mr. Macron’s strategy of triangulating France’s electoral landscape. “And it’s a dangerous game in which one can lose — and lose democracy.”
Mr. Macron won just 28 percent of the vote last week, to 23 percent for Ms. Le Pen and 22 percent for Mr. Mélenchon, with a host of others trailing behind. Already, some voters are considering sitting out Round 2, disappointed by the incumbent’s record.
“In 2017, he was a fresh face, he was young, he was ambitious — but in the end, he didn’t do anything,” said Nadia Mebrek, a 48-year-old Mélenchon supporter, adding she would likely abstain. She was standing in the Rue d’Aubagne, where two buildings collapsed in 2018, killing eight people — a testament to Marseille’s endemic housing and poverty crisis.
“Macron, he protects the rich more than the poor,” said Ms. Mebrek, who as a personal care assistant has always been paid only the minimum wage.
Polls show that only a third of Mr. Mélenchon’s supporters would back Mr. Macron in the runoff to keep Ms. Le Pen from power, with the rest split between a vote for Ms. Le Pen and abstention.
But the first week of the runoff campaign has seemed to favor Mr. Macron. Voter surveys show that his lead in the second round has widened. The French president would get 56 percent of the vote, compared with 44 for Ms. Le Pen — his largest lead since late March.
In Marseille, many Mélenchon supporters like Nate Gasser, 26, said they would hold their noses and back Mr. Macron to defeat Ms. Le Pen. “It annoys me to do that, but we’ll vote for Macron,” he said, insisting that it was not “a vote of adherence.”
“And after that,” he said, “we’ll take to the streets to protest.”